Four and a half months after the Union Army defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln dedicated a national cemetery where many of the fallen Union soldiers were buried. At the dedication, Lincoln gave a speech for the ages, the one we now know as the Gettysburg address. The speech is short, but the conclusion is one worth revisiting this Memorial Day weekend:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
I read this speech with heaviness of heart this year. It does seem like the nation that Lincoln described is slipping away. It seems less a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” than it is a people of the government, by the government, for the government. As the people decrease, the state increases. And the people have decreased in virtue, historical awareness, and commitment to ordered liberty “under God.”
The 2016 race for the presidency is a direct reflection of our current malaise. As a nation, we seem to have embarked on a Commodus-like decline. Out of all the people who campaigned for president this year, the two major parties have selected candidates that are not qualified for the office they seek. Both of them have disqualified themselves on moral grounds. As such, neither of them represents the best of our traditions, but they do seem to reflect what the nation has become. And this is much more distressing than the candidates themselves.
It is the conceit of great nations to think that things will always be as they have been–that national greatness is automatic and assured. But this is–in the end–only a conceit. As God warned Edom of old,
The arrogance of your heart has deceived you,
You who live in the clefts of the rock,
In the loftiness of your dwelling place,
Who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to earth?’
Though you build high like the eagle,
Though you set your nest among the stars,
From there I will bring you down,” declares the LORD.
God raises, and God brings down. We have nothing but what we have been given. And we are closing our eyes to providence and history to pretend otherwise. If you think national greatness can never be undone, remember that Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and countless others all indulged the same conceit. We will be great as long as God wants us to be. As Lincoln himself acknowledged in his Second Inaugural Address, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”
A Christian citizen’s duty is not to predict the secret movements of providence but to pledge himself to the welfare of the nation (Jeremiah 29:7). For us, it means first and foremost Great Commission witness at home and abroad. But it also means that we understand that “Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). And so we pledge ourselves to the good, the right, and the true even if we are the only ones doing it–even if our countrymen despise us for it. And we do so because we love our neighbor and our nation. And in doing so, we bear witness to the fact that here we have no lasting city, but seek a city which is to come (Hebrews 13:14).
So on this Memorial Day, I am remembering the words of Lincoln, but even more the words of scripture. I don’t want those dead to have died in vain. I want this great experiment in order liberty to survive. Perhaps we are in the twilight of a great Republic, but perhaps not yet. But if it is, I won’t let it go without a fight. I hope and pray you won’t either.
[Read Denny Burk regularly. You will be better for it.]